Revising the Practice of the Lord’s Supper at Faith Presbyterian Church No. 3: Wine No. 2


We began this series two Lord’s Day evening’s ago by reviewing the many changes that have been made in our worship over the years, some of the rationale for those changes, and explaining why, at this particular historical moment, we and many other Christians are thinking again about the practice of the Lord’s Supper. We spoke of how the change from an infrequent to an every Sunday communion has inevitably led to new questions about the best way to observe the Supper. Obviously, we want the maximum effect of the Supper in our souls and we know that form, though not the most important matter – the heart and faith alive and at work in the heart come first – nevertheless can have a significant effect on how the Supper is perceived and experienced by worshippers. Among the changes that are being widely made in conservative, Bible-believing, Reformed and Presbyterian churches are a return to wine after using grape juice for several generations and moving away from the long-standing practice of pew communion, or the taking of the elements while seated in the pews. These and other matters are our subjects in this series on the practice of the Lord’s Supper. We pointed out that our practice of the Lord’s Supper is traditional, in large part because we have no explicit account of a Lord’s Supper service in apostolic Christianity. But, being traditional, it is important to review our practice from time to time to be sure that we are using that form best suited to convey the true meaning and experience of the Supper to a worshipping congregation. It has been traditional for Reformed/Presbyterian Christians not to kneel for prayer in worship – an explicitly biblical custom that was lost because of a long-forgotten theological controversy in England and Scotland. Traditions can sometimes perpetuate mistakes and, given the fact that our way of doing the Lord’s Supper is not only not the way to which many other Christians are accustomed, but was not even the way that the Lord’s Supper was practiced at the time of the Reformation, there is surely reason for us to revisit our traditional practice to see if it is really the best.

Last Lord’s Day evening we began our consideration of the question of using wine in communion. In order to pay proper attention to the arguments advanced against the use of wine, I am setting out the case against Christians drinking wine – and, by extension its use in the sacrament – as that case was made by Pastor John MacArthur in a series of sermons that he preached at his Grace Community Church. We have a high regard for Pastor MacArthur and, having listened to his tapes, I think he has made the case against the use of wine as well and as seriously as it can be made.

Last Lord’s Day evening we considered his first argument, viz. that the wine of biblical times was a much less alcoholic drink than wine today, really more like our grape juice, and that, therefore, one cannot make from the Bible a case for the proper Christian use of what is called wine today. The word in the Bible means something very different than what the word “wine” means today. We considered that claim and found it virtually completely without support in any scholarship: biblical, historical, or the scholarship of wine and viticulture itself. What is more, we found that the biblical depiction of wine and wine-making didn’t agree with Mr. MacArthur’s presentation either. Rather, all the evidence suggests that wine in the ancient world was, very largely, what wine is today. Wine is created as the result of a chemical process that results from the combination of yeast and sugars that are found in the grape itself and unless something is brought in to check that process, wine will result from the fermentation of juice pressed from grapes by a fixed law.

Interestingly, I have in my file a similar argument to that made by Pastor MacArthur by a man by the name of Stephen Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds has a PHD from Princeton University and was a member of the translation team for the NIV. He is a scholar of ancient Greek. But his argument reduces to the same logic that is so persuasive to Pastor MacArthur and has been so persuasive to so many over the past several generations. He cannot believe that God would approve of a substance the abuse of which causes such great harm. From this vantage point he views the various texts of the Bible in which wine is mentioned and concludes that where it is mentioned approvingly the word means grape juice and when it’s power to inebriate is at all in view it means an alcoholic beverage that the Bible forbids Christians to drink. He admits, of course – how could he not – that the words used are the same in both instances. It is the context that determines whether we are to read grape juice or wine. If the Bible is speaking approvingly, it means grape juice; if disapprovingly it means wine. Now, Dr. Reynolds is a scholar, so he is forced to admit that hardly anyone agrees with him. No dictionary of ancient Greek, no major commentator on the Biblical passages themselves – neither evangelical nor liberal – no historian of ancient near-eastern culture, and, what is more, no English translation of the Bible from John Wyclif to the NIV. They all missed this distinction he purports to find in the biblical use of these terms rendered “wine” and “strong drink” by everyone else.

These good men are certain that the Lord would never recommend an alcoholic beverage, never permit and certainly never celebrate its use. For that reason they are sure there must be a way to read the Bible that does not lead to that result. But, in so doing, I do not believe they have been faithful to the plain-speaking of Holy Scripture, to the ordinary meaning of words, or to the nature of biblical ethics, as we shall see in due course.

We concluded last week by saying that clearly the fact that wine was used in the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper, according to the testimony of Scripture and of early Christianity, is a fact with which Christians must reckon when they consider the question of how the Lord’s Supper ought to be observed by Christians today. Now we proceed.

Pastor MacArthur’s second point is that wine is not necessary. If wine is not explicitly forbidden it is a choice for Christians today. But is it a necessary choice?

His first point was that the wine of the ancient world was not what we know as wine. His second point is that it is not necessary for Christians to drink today’s wine and, if not necessary, why then should they do it.

He admits that in biblical times it may have been necessary. It was necessary in some cases because there wasn’t anything else to drink and it was necessary in other cases because of the expectations of society. That is why, says Pastor MacArthur, the Bible does not give a blanket condemnation of wine, because it might, in some circumstances, be necessary.

Now, there are any number of responses that could be made to this argument against the drinking of wine. I’ll make just these.

1. First, perhaps it occurred immediately to you that Pastor MacArthur can’t have his cake and eat it too. If “wine” in the Bible is really grape juice – either a completely non-intoxicating fruit drink or a drink with such a low alcoholic content that a state of drunkenness was very difficult to achieve – then what does necessity have to do with it and why would the Bible ever, under any circumstances, for any reason, give a blanket condemnation of the drinking of “wine.” Surely grape juice may be drunk by anyone at any time! If that is what wine is then it was no more “necessary” in biblical times than it is today. Anyone could have drunk it at any time.

2. Second, time and again through Pastor MacArthur’s presentation, I noted that he would say such things as “the Bible doesn’t give a blanket condemnation of wine.” But that is hardly a fair representation of what the Bible says. The fact is, as pitiless as the Bible is in its condemnation of drunkenness, it has many wonderful things to say about wine. It celebrates wine time and again. It uses it as an image of the day of salvation, of the Messianic kingdom, of salvation itself. It is a gift that men ought to give to God himself in their sacrifices. Wine makes glad the heart of a man, it is one of God’s gifts to his people, and so on. It completely misstates the situation to imply that the Bible has a negative view of wine at all, in the least. It has a decidedly negative view of drunkenness, but a decidedly positive view of wine. Wine is never drunk as a necessity in the Bible, it is never the lesser of two evils.

3. Third, I don’t know and Mr. MacArthur doesn’t say what the “necessity” might be that justified wine drinking in the ancient world. They had other things to drink – water and milk among them – and those drinks were staples. So far as I can tell, no one drank wine in the ancient world because he or she had to, unless they were lost in the desert and had only wine in their canteen. Wine was complicated to make and cost more than water or milk. Perhaps he means that if you were the guest at some banquet and wine were set before you, you would not feel free to decline it for fear of offending your host. But, there would be no reason to decline it because it was only grape juice anyway. On Pastor MacArthur’s own account, you couldn’t have got drunk on that wine unless you drank not only yours but everyone else’s wine.

Let me simply respond to Pastor MacArthur’s argument that wine is not necessary by saying that the Bible never raises that issue of necessity in respect to wine (or many other things, as we shall see), considers wine one of God’s good gifts, and celebrates its use in many different ways.

Pastor MacArthur’s third argument is that wine is not the best choice. Given that the Bible does not explicitly forbid the drinking of wine, it is a choice. But is it the best choice, he asks.

Now we begin our response in the same way we did before. If wine is only grape juice then why is it not the best choice, why would anyone think it not the best choice. There is everywhere this fatal self-contradiction in Pastor MacArthur’s argument.

But, listen carefully to the argument as he makes it. John the Baptist, whom Jesus himself declared to be the greatest man born of woman, didn’t drink wine. He was, in modern parlance, a teetotaler. It was, for him apparently, a part of the Nazirite vow that God made for him before his birth. But, as we read in Numbers 6:1, anyone could step up to that higher standard. Surely we all want to live lives at the highest standard possible and that standard was marked by an absence of wine. What is more, the priests, when they served in the sanctuary were not permitted to drink wine. And, in Proverbs 31:4-6, we read:

“It is not for kings, O Lemuel! – not for kings to drink wine,

not for rulers to crave beer,

lest they drink and forget what the law decrees,

and deprive the oppressed of their rights.

Give beer to those who are perishing, wine to those who are in anguish;

Let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.”

And, then, there are the Rechabites of whom we read in Jeremiah 35. They were a faithful people to whom Jeremiah pointed as an example of everything that the Israelites of his day were not. And their faithfulness was demonstrated by the fact that they did not drink wine, even when it was offered to them, because their forefather, Jonadab, had commanded them not to. And they remained faithful, through the generations, to the commandment of their forefather, even while Israel was departing from the commandments of God himself!

Pastor MacArthur’s point, as you see, is that, while wine drinking is not condemned per se, in these different ways a refusal to drink wine is a feature of a higher and holier life. It was forbidden to kings and priests, but we are all to be kings and priests in the new covenant, says Pastor MacArthur. Now there is something to reckon with here, of course. I hope we all wish for the highest and holiest life of which we are capable, a life of unqualified devotion to the Lord, a life of ready forsaking of the world, the flesh, and the devil for Christ’s sake.

But, surely, there is no argument here against the drinking of wine. The Nazirite vow was a vow of temporary consecration. Only in certain highly unique cases – John the Baptist and Samson in particular – was it the rule of someone’s entire life. It was a vow of self-denial. Not only was no wine drunk, the man who made that vow was not to drink grape juice or eat any grape. That rule was a way of demonstrating the completeness of the consecration. Likewise they could not cut their hair nor could they even mourn loved ones who died during the time of their vow. Think also of John the Baptist’s unusual clothing and his strange diet. He had separated himself from the normal life of mankind for the sake of symbolizing his consecration to God. The Nazirite vow was a symbol of a complete devotement of one’s life to the Lord. But, of course, it was only symbolically so. The vow had a time limit, there were stipulations in the regulations concerning how the vow was to be ended.

And what is perfectly clear is that in the Nazirite vow, wine is refused precisely because it is one of those things that enriches life. In much the same way as fasting is a demonstration of consecration to God because food is good and our bodies crave it so and so doing without it is a sacrifice, so in the same way to do without wine was a sacrifice. It was a sacrifice not to be able to mourn one’s loved ones when they died and it was a sacrifice not to drink wine. The Nazirite vow is a demonstration of the very point that Pastor MacArthur is unwilling to make, viz. that wine is good and was a normal part of a believer’s life in biblical times.

The priests were forbidden to drink wine while they were ministering in the sanctuary (Lev. 10:9), again as a symbol of their complete consecration to God. Commentators disagree, however, as to the precise reason and the Bible does not say. Some suggest that Israel’s priests were forbidden to use alcohol during their service in the sanctuary because pagan priests around them used inebriation as a method of consulting with the gods. Others think it was simply a precaution against any loss of sound mind while responsible for sacred things.

The idea in Prov. 31 is again similar. A king should not be under the influence when making judgments. The consequences of bad decisions are too great. That is all that is meant, however. In fact, it is worth pointing out that in Prov. 31:6, which speaks of giving wine to the perishing and those who are in anguish, Mr. MacArthur’s entire case is lost. Obviously wine had an effect and not only when drunk in immense quantities as Pastor MacArthur claimed. It could be used to dampen emotional pain.

And, in the case of the Rechabites, their not drinking wine had nothing to do with any sin in wine drinking, with any idea that drinking wine was not the practice of the most godly and committed of people. Jeremiah, drank wine, after all! It had only to do, as Jer. 35 makes clear, with the Rechabites solemn vow to remain nomads, not to settle down, not to plant vineyards, not to press grapes, not to live in houses. The not drinking of wine was a part of this nomadic lifestyle and their commitment to it.

Now all of this argument, however well-intentioned by Pastor MacArthur, seems to me to completely miss the point. It isn’t wine drinking that is at issue in these various places, it isn’t drinking something that has the capacity to inebriate, it isn’t a negative judgment made on alcoholic beverages, it is, in every case, a summons to forbear wine – and other perfectly good things, by the way – for a time, either as a sacrifice made to God or for the purposes of maintaining the clearest head at the most crucial moment. What person who favors the drinking of wine would disagree with either the notion of forsaking it temporarily for spiritual reasons or of not drinking it on purpose at certain moments?

I am, as it happens, in the fortunate position of making the biblical case while being a person who doesn’t happen to like wine. I have no vested interest, personally. I am seeking nothing for myself. It would be no sacrifice for me to drink no wine for a period of time because I never drink wine. I don’t like the taste. At Lent, for some years now, I have forsaken the drinking of Iced Tea, and that was a real sacrifice, a much greater sacrifice than the Nazirite vow, if you ask me! But it was a sacrifice precisely because it is something so good, something that I enjoy so much. That is the place wine has in biblical culture.

The fact is, abstention from wine is unusual in the Bible. It was forbidden to be used in the way it was used in pagan religion, of course, which may explain why Daniel did not want to drink the king’s wine (Dan. 1:8). People abstained from wine for the sake of mourning (Dan. 10:2), which indicates again the very positive view of wine that people had. Wine goes with happiness, not with mourning. And then there were these other cases of abstaining that we have seen: the Nazirites for the duration of their vow, the priests, but only when ministering in the sanctuary, and the Rechabites as a way of preserving their nomadic way of life. [TDOT, vi, 63]

But, all of that is somewhat beside the point. What astonished me about this third argument Pastor MacArthur offered against Christians drinking wine was that he made a great point of saying that John the Baptist was the greatest man born of woman and he was a teetotaler. I was, of course, expecting him to, but he never then once raised the obvious problem that Jesus Christ, one greater than John by John’s own testimony, drank wine. Our Savior drank wine. He drank it often enough and enjoyed it to a sufficient extent that he opened himself up to the charge of being a drunk (as he enjoyed food enough to be charged with being a glutton by his enemies). It is even made drinking wine a point of comparison between himself and John the Baptist.

“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard…'” [Matt. 11:17]

Jesus drank wine obviously and openly enough and in quantities sufficient so as to allow his enemies to accuse him of being a drunk, which, of course, he never was. How can we possibly make the mark of a more devout and godly life the not drinking of wine when Jesus Christ himself, the perfect man, drank wine? John’s special calling was marked by his Nazirite separation and asceticism. In that he is not a particular example for us except to the extent that we fast. But Jesus is an example for us in every way and all the time, both when he fasts and when he eats and drinks.

Seneca, the Stoic philosopher of first century Rome, once wrote this about men he admired. “Men say that Solon and Archilaus were given to wine, and Cato himself has been taxed by his enemies with drunkenness. But he who says that about Cato shall, in saying that, rather prove that drunkenness is a virtue, than that Cato indulged himself indecently.” [Cited in Whyte, Walk, Character and Conversation of Jesus Christ, 239-240] We might say the same thing about the Lord Christ. Those who accused him of drunkenness rather prove that drunkenness is a virtue than that Jesus Christ drank too much! My point is that Christ drank wine and, for the Christian, that is the end of the story so far as any possible claim that teetotaling is a higher form of godliness is concerned.

It has always been, in my judgment, the greatest problem for the argument against drinking wine that it has always amounted to an attempt, however unintentional, however unmeant, to improve on the ethics of Jesus Christ. That is something no Christian should ever do! And the fact that Pastor MacArthur urges us to imitate John the Baptist and says nothing of the fact that Jesus’ own conduct was not an imitation of John is, to me, the ruination of his case that not drinking wine is the better choice for Christians.

So, we have now taken up three of Pastor MacArthur’s eight arguments against wine drinking by Christians, and, by extension, the use of wine in the Lord’s Supper. The other five will go more quickly. I think we can cover them next Lord’s Day evening. And then we can look at the biblical data as a whole. Remember, we are trying to determine the significance we ought to attach to the unmistakable fact that wine was used for the first Lord’s Supper and then ever thereafter until very recently.